Friday, January 28, 2011

Tow My Heart Away

"The Reaper - After Millet"
by Van Gogh ( Sept. 1889),
Private Collection, UK
A little scene took place in the driveway on Thursday. It lasted about ten minutes, but it represented the end of a relationship that had endured almost a decade, one that began when our son was still a toddler back in those few remaining months before September 11 ceased to be just another date on the calendar.

I said goodbye to our emerald green 1997 Toyota Corolla which we acquired in April 2001 from a college student. I watched as a decade of our life was chained up to the back of a tow truck.

It was time. The car, while still driveable and trustworthy, was dated. Anyone have use for an in-dash cassette player these days? And when you started the engine it vibrated so much that it felt like one was behind the wheel of a Kenworth.

I wasn't sentimental about this car like I was when we finally parted with our Swedish car that so effectively reminded me of days in Alaska. The Corolla was about basic, around the town, mundane transportation. In a given year we hardly put 5000 miles on it.

I thought about taking a picture, but why bother? This wasn't a grand separation.  It was nothing like the things the aged tow truck driver told me when I innocently asked him how he got into the towing business.

Now here was a story! I was standing in the presence of an old, slightly stooped, graying man who had lost the love of his life. He was the man who used to cut the wheat.

The Harvest
Bringing in the harvest with a high-tech combine.
For 45 years Lonnie (I'll call him) followed the grain belt. He started in the south and he worked his way north all the way into Canada.

He stood out there at the curb, hooking up my car, and simultaneously fondly recollecting the life he'd been squeezed out of by crush of the new economics, which involves so much money that a man catches his breath. And it involves something else: the persistent pattern of technology replacing human beings.

"When I first started out I had a combine that cost $6000. In the end each machine was $320,000. Course the old ones didn't even have a cab, much less air conditioning. The new-uns, they have a row of monitors in the cab  that shows everything going on outside."

A lot of what Lonnie told me involved numbers like this. It's not weather that changes a man's life. One can forge past weather. It's not always illness or injury. With the grace of God one can recover. But numbers! You can't fight the numbers once they cease to be in your favor.

"We had 5 combines and 12 people and a vehicle when we went out. Today to have that many machines would mean I'd have $3 million tied up just in equipment."

"I read last week about someone who bought 60,000 acres of wheat in Canada. Paid $40 million. That's what? $700 an acre? Used to be you could buy land for $45/acre and make $80 acre for the wheat you grew on it. The wheat paid for your land."

"I found an old receipt from 1973. I paid 27 cents for gas and 19 cents for diesel. Nowadays diesel is how much? Way over $3."

"My son is driving a truck these days. He says he'd like to go back to combining, but I tell him not to. It's too hard to make a living...last year we had a good harvest, but the price of wheat was bad."

A Life After Wheat
So Lonnie has been moving along on his gimpy leg for the past six years and driving a tow truck. "I have more money now than I did back then," he tells me. His job? To pick up vehicles like mine that are being donated to charity or, more often, to haul away wrecks after insurance companies have decided they're totaled.

If the air bags "blew," it's quite likely totaled and Lonnie
will be taking it to auction to be sold for parts and scrap.
"Doesn't take much to to total a car these days," he observes. "If  you're in any kind of accident and the front air bags go off, it's $3000 right there to replace them with factory ones."

So there are plenty of cars for Lonnie to haul to the grim place beside the railroad tracks where they'll be broken into parts and scrapped.

At least he doesn't have to pick up vehicles being repossessed from their owners by the bank.

'I know a guy who did that for a while, then quit. He got shot at too many times."

The Way It Was
All things must come to an end. I know this because my grandfather was a farmer. He had some dairy cows, then he grew old and it got too hard to get up and milk Bessie. He got himself some heifers. He continued to raise beef, some alfalfa, and wheat on his little 110-acre farm until he was in his seventies.

This is what it looked like when my grandfather harvested the wheat
on his Oklahoma farm in the 1960s.
I remember going out into the wheat field when I was a kid and following the orange Allis Chalmers combine as its wooden paddles turned and pulled in the tall golden grass. The separated chaff blew out a stack on the side of the combine. The wheat kernels poured into a bin.

Those kernels reminded me of some form of tiny bright treasure. The warm grainy scent was like inhaling a wealth of sorts. You just knew that with such things sprung from the earth, humanity always could always find flavor and sustenance.

All that's left of our '97 Corolla...
oil spots on the driveway.
In Memoriam
It's not what anyone would call tragic to see one farmer like my grandfather or Lonnie retire. It's not desperately sad to part with a car that I don't need anymore.
What does move me to concern and something beyond a cloying form of nostalgia is pondering if an important way of life is being lost.

When the machines become enormous and complicated, and as expensive as a mansion, we drive away the people who once placed their calloused hands tenderly upon the things we long to consume.

What was once of the earth has become a product, a commodity, removed from the smooth, wheaty kernels I remember digging into and letting pour through my fingers.

I'm sorry. I don't want technicians or robots harvesting my food. I want someone like Lonnie who cares about what he's doing. But I don't think that's going to happen as much as before.

You see, we've reassigned Lonnie to the same fate as that man Van Gogh painted over a hundred years ago, the man who had to put down his scythe. Instead of going out into the field to bring in the treasure, the harvester now gets paid to handle the chains and haul off  our dented and smashed trash.

That's quite an inversion and, unfortunately, it's the kind of "news" that's happening every day. Whether I choose to read about it or not. - V.W.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sigmund Freud and Dreaming the News

One thing that has surprised me about this project was how initially it wasn't so difficult.
I turned off the TV, I kept newspapers at a distance, I drastically limited the websites I visited, and I began to live in blissful ignorance.

The key word in the last sentence is "initially."

Lately it's been extremely hard to go on this way. Not knowing can start to feel like not living.

Out in my garage there are two stacks which consist of saved copies of the local daily newspaper alongside the New York Times. These stacks are growing noticeably taller.

The unread newspapers archived in my garage are approaching 16" in height.

Standing there in with my feet on the concrete floor of the garage it occurs to me that most of the stories and facts embedded in that paper pile are also stored up in my fellow humans' minds in the form of memories. But not mine. Like an amnesiac, part of my brain is empty.

Well, that's not quite right. The amnesiac once knew, then his mind went blank. I'm more like someone who has been a castaway on an island and never received word of anything at all.

Not even a message in a bottle.

Not So Sweet Dreams Are Made of These...
As I've stated many times to various persons, the purpose of this project is for me to see if I can live a "normal" life while not knowing what's going on in the larger world. I'm starting to wonder these days.

Does it count as normal if I have disturbing dreams about the news?

Let me venture a guess. No.

What follows is probably not the kind of thing the rest of you are dreaming about. But just to make sure, I've brought along a special person, a notable expert in this field, to weigh in on the matter.

Introducing Our Mystery Guest
Having made his mark a long time ago in the practice of psychology, a branch of which he can be said to have invented, our guest at The Van Winkle Project today is a man who truly needs no introduction. So I won't take up much of our time or his with that.

It should be noted though, that at this point, he is 154 years old. For that reason he doesn't get around much these days, which is another reason for both of us to be brief. At that age he's a bit fragile and it's difficult for him to speak at length. Frankly, he'd rather sleep.

So, without further delay, I would like to introduce two of Van Winkle's recent dreams with a guest interpretation, which will be delivered by none other than Dr. Sigmund Freud of Vienna, Austria.

Dream #1: The Weapons of War Run Amok
I don't know how I got here. Out in nature. In the woods. Crazy thing! I see an U.S. Army tank clanking along. It's not supposed to be here. This is American soil. No orders have been given. Somehow I know that the tank has been hijacked by a veteran of the Afghanistan war who upon returning home has gone berserk.

There seems to be an Army tank in my dream...

I find myself looking down. From a bird's-eye point of view...

The tank is going around and around  in circles and knocking over trees with insane abandon...

Eventually the tank crashes through the forest, toppling more trees than I can count and it emerges from the woods to be met by a crowd of irate citizens. As the soldier climbs out of the tank they are shouting at him angrily.

"Why don't you go back and fix the forest!"

What I Thought the Dream Meant:

What on earth is going on in Afghanistan? The last time I had news of the war it was September and things were not going well. Some might have said we were just going in circles, chasing the Taliban and the Taliban cleverly running away from us.

And there is the ongoing problem of the living casualties of that war, those who serve and then come home and find the emotional trauma of war keeps them from living the way they wish, as if the legacy of this war is some awful dark force has that has hijacked their lives...

Dr. Freud's Analysis:

Wrong! Clearly this dream has nothing to do with the country of Afghanistan or geopolitical events. It is about Mr. Van Winkle's own life and story. He feels he is going in circles. He believes himself to have a certain power, symbolized by the canon in the tank, but he is unable to take aim and ignite his powder so to speak.

He also feels that in his being lost in the woods that he is harming others. These are the trees that he knocks down. In the end he thinks he will be held accountable for his failures. He will receive the disapprobation of others who will demand that he go back and do the impossible, fix the forest, i.e., live his life over again without such gross mistakes.

Dream #2: The Doomsday Scenario
I am bicycling along leafy neighborhoods in Washington D.C. Eventually the street I am on leads to wider lanes, bustling traffic, the appearance of buildings set on city blocks. Up ahead of me many policemen are waving at cars and me that we cannot go ahead. We will have to turn right as part of a detour.

That's when I see it in the near distance.

The U.S. Capitol building. It looks like this.

I can't believe what I'm seeing...
My immediate feeling is that the burning Capitol is not the result of a terrorist attack. I have a disturbing sense that an angry mob is nearby. Possibly there has been some kind of coup d'etat and the U.S. Government has been overthrown.

Stunned, aghast, I pedal away. As fast as I can...

What I Thought the Dream Meant:

When I went to "sleep" the nation seemed very divided and many people were angry. All the talk was of the mid-term elections and the Tea Party movement.

This dream seems to take my uneasiness to a hyperbolic dimension in which the competing points of views and parties become so polarized that in their divisiveness they ultimately destroy our government. "A house divided cannot stand," said Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps I am imagining not the literal demise of the buildings and organs of government, but the government's eventual inability to function in anything resembling an effective fashion.

Dr. Freud's Analysis:

Das ist unglaublich falsch! You mustn't think of the U.S. Capitol building! The U.S. Government. Think of you!

What appears as stones in the dream is really flesh and blood. You are like that burning building, you follow? These days you feel uncomfortable, as if smoke is pouring out of you. Who has done this thing? You have no idea. All you know at your deepest level of the unconscious is that you are monumentally upset.

So Who is Right? Freud or V.W.?
What am I going to say? You ask an honest question, you get an honest answer. I believe my dreams are a direction reflection of how my lack of news weighs heavily on my mind, no matter how cavalier I may act about it during certain waking moments. This not knowing leads me to imagine the worst.

Ignorance, it turns out, dwells just the other side of nightmare.

Of course, that could be a surplus of paranoia in me speaking, a word that Dr. Freud had plenty to say about. The important thing is this: While I'm sure some dreams can be profitably re-narrated to conform to a symbolic interpretation of them, I don't think this is always appropriate. Sometimes as the good Doctor himself said, "A cigar is just a cigar" and I would add a tank is a tank and a Capitol building is a building.

I may find a way to stop going around in circles in my life, but I don't expect these kinds of dreams to cease until I "wake up" on Sept. 11, 2011. - V.W.


Friday, January 21, 2011

The Big Lebowski and the Whole Brevity Thing Cont.

I was feeling good that I had tentatively decided to model myself after one of the ancient Spartans and resolve to become more laconic in my speech and writing in the new year. (See: The Whole Brevity Thing)

But soon I hit a bump in the road. I had so much to communicate about brevity that I couldn't be brief in my written disquisition upon the subject.

It was all part of an ongoing situation. As much I wished for it, I never seemed able to write a short post for The Van Winkle Project.

This puts me at odds with our overall culture.

Aren't we people who desire these days to keep everything as short and condensed as possible?

A sound bite, not a speech? A song, not a whole album of songs? A tweet in place of a tome?

Befuddled, flummoxed, and metaphorically bloodied by my failure, I did what any reasonable 21st Century person might do.

I sat down and watched The Big Lebowski. Again.

Enter the Dude
Long ago the Coen Brothers' film The Big Lebowski (1998) reached cult film status. A cult film is, of course, one that you watch repeatedly like a monkey eating another banana and soon you start to memorize all the funny lines. Which can come in handy as you start to plug them into everyday speech and thus amuse your friends who are on a lifelong quest for the Kingdom of Mirth.

So the film is rolling (or spinning in the age of DVD and Blu-ray) and I am still trying to figure out if and how I can be a sterling example of brevity and scale back these Van Winkle Project posts.

I'm into the first half hour of the movie when the Dude (Jeff Bridges) suddenly speaks to me. Actually he speaks to the Big Lebowski which is not the same as the Lebowski who is the Dude because the Big Lebowski is a millionaire in a wheelchair whereas the other Lebowski is the Dude...

If you haven't seen the movie, it's a tad complicated.

But the point is that the way the Dude seemed to offer something special just to me, a guy sitting in a room watching a movie about him 12 years after the film was committed to celluloid, is not unusual or startling. This is what the Dude does. This is just one example of how "the Dude abides."

So here's what the Dude said that threw sudden halogen headlights on my dilemma concerning brevity.

Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not "Mr. Lebowski". You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm the Dude. So that's what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing.

The Dude discourses on nomenclature

You only have to watch the first minute of the film and see the Dude in bathrobe and shorts slopping along ,sniffing his way down the dairy aisle of a Ralph's grocery store and then writing a check for .69 cents at the checkout to know that, personally, he is a major fan of brevity.

You can also see this predilection for brevity in how the Dude seeks the least complicated solution to his problems in contrast to his ever elaborating, scheming, heat-packing friend Walter (John Goodman).

 But, more than that, the Dude's a fan of whatever works. Be brief if you want, his life illustrates for us, but if you'd like to tack on a few more syllables he's cool with that, too. It's the same flexibility he shows when at Maude's house he finds no half and half to add to Kahlua to create his signature White Russian, so he uses Coffeemate.

The 69-cent check. Financial brevity a la Dude

Thrilling Conclusion
The Spartans' cultivation of the laconic phrase serves as an example to me that brevity can be a beautiful thing. If what I want to say in conversation can be condensed and said with the fewest possible words, it can have more impact than an over-garnished torrent of language. And it leaves me more time to listen to the other person.

The year 2011 seems to be beckoning me to do this sort of thing in my verbal communications.

I wish to speak less and listen more.

As for writing, it is the Dude who has given me permission to go the other way. To not necessarily always be into the whole brevity thing. Here's why.

Certain human thoughts, insights and passions seem to deserve more respect than what can be offered by a string of words that are short enough to fit on a bumper sticker or the screen of a mobile device. They require more than two intakes of breath and a sign off on a blog post to do them justice. What they need is elaboration, meditation, and extensive relocation of one's mind to a mental space where one can dwell with them.

Meet the Culture Bandit

As slam poet Vanessa Hidary says in her classic Def Poetry Jam Season 1 performance of  "The Culture Bandit":

"Some people think more is less. I say more is more. Less is less!"

The hard truth is that as much as we extol its virtues, brevity at some point offers diminishing returns. Eventually what wishes to pass for brevity begins to approach vacuity. You get what you pay for.

Make no mistake. I hear the outcry of those who say no one has time to read anything l-o-n-g anymore. Perhaps this is so, but I'm reminded of an old phrase used by customers of honest butchers or other tradesmen who sold their goods by using a scale to acquire the size  portion the customer wished to buy. The customers said, "He (or she) gives good weight."

Writing that is brief, and seems to offer content but leaves the reader with a minute or so of eyeball movement, nothing they'll even remember an hour later, and then the reader moves on, is the modern equivalent of the writer putting his or her thumb on the scale. See right here? It's ten pounds of real mental sustenance (wink, wink).

It's not giving good weight.

It's a promise of sixty-nine cents inscribed on the piece of paper, a promise that ought to be for much more or why go to all the trouble to use ink and write a check in the first place? Instead, put down the pen; just lay your handful of coins on the counter and go.

I believe I'd rather say something at a bit greater length and not have anyone read it, than write down-sized, lightweight fluff and be one more soul around the globe stuffing the Great Internet Fortune Cookie with slivers of what passes for human thought and feeling.

So, El Duderino, thanks for showing me. That I'm not really into the whole brevity thing.

Brief in speech, but not always brief in words. That will be the Van Winkle resolution for 2011. - V.W.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Whole Brevity Thing

For the new year I thought I might have just one resolution. Limiting myself to a single resolution ought to be do'able.

Honestly, the downfall of my resolutions in the past is that I always have too many. I come up with the top ten things I want to change or improve in my life.

Absurd ambition. An overloaded ship of foolish vows. My good intentions sink by February.

But I still faced a problem. If I were to apply myself assiduously in 2011 to only one thing, what should this most condensed and briefest of resolutions be about? That's when it came to me.

My brief resolution could be to embrace brevity.

Of course, it made sense. I'd just spent an entire week at The Van Winkle Project meditating on the three-line news items (called fait-divers) that the Parisian Félix Fénéon wrote in 1906. That experience had served to send a fresh breeze of brevity wafting over me. I was ready to believe in less is more as the new guiding principle of some important area of my life.

The Search for Brevity
As I began to seriously consider brevity as my strongest candidate for a New Year's resolution, I had to narrow down my choices. Where in my life could I strive to be more brief?

I decided to back all the way up and think about the word and its meaning:. Brevity means, well, to be brief. So I went looking for some examples to inspire me.

Let's see. Lawyers write what are called briefs. Unfortunately this proved to be no help. Is anything a lawyer writes actually brief and to the point?

Page 1 of a 70-page "brief" filed in Sept. 2010

In fact, a large container the approximate size of a year-old calf had to be invented so that lawyers would have a way to transport all their not-so-brief briefs. Thus we have the bulging briefcase.

The next thing I thought of was in the world of clothing. There are, of course, men's briefs.

Calling this undergarment brief is somewhat apt when one considers what men wore in the not so distant past:

19th Century men's undies

Still, if we want to talk brief, then we'd be looking at:

Wait. This was a horrible tangent. I wasn't getting anywhere!

Seeking a Synonym
I told our son what I was doing. That I was trying to find an image that would lead me to the best way to be brief in 2011. He immediately turned to a something he learned last year in sixth grade World History class.

"Dad, that would be like being a Spartan wouldn't it? And you can find a picture of a Spartan."

Our son was right about those Greek guys who paraded their pectorals and chucked spears while wearing those cool helmets with face shields. I hadn't thought about them being  brief, just violent and having liberal views on sexual orientation, but now I recalled a further meaning of spartan in the dictionary.

The next step was to search for information on how the Spartans were spare, how being brief contributed to what fearsome, disciplined warriors they were and the militaristic rigor of their society. That's how I learned more about an especially important aspect of Spartan culture, their trademark style of communication. Verbally, the Spartans dined on rations of brevity.

Contrarians, the Spartans rebelled against the style up north of Athens where the philosophers and rhetoricians regaled crowds with their expansive explanations of life. The Spartans were the original cut-to-the-chase guys, the people demanding "Where's the beef?"

We have a name for the sort of speech which models itself after that of the people of the polis of Laconia which was the center of Sparta.

It's called laconic.

In the interest of brevity, here's just one laconic example from the Spartans themselves:

My Own Personal "If"
The Spartans' laconic speech resonated with me. Since I spend a fair portion of each day engaged in communication. I realized that if I could cultivate the laconic, it could save me considerable time. Especially if I applied it to what currently consumes the most hours of my day.


It was so obvious. What I needed to do was pare down my writing to an absolute minimum.

In fact, much of the world has already embraced this mode. Facebook scrawls on the wall, tweets, texts.

In my exploration of blogs I've noticed this, too. Quite a few bloggers' posts consist of a picture and perhaps a caption. Or the blogger will settle for what amounts to a paragraph's worth of discourse. I'm guessing that at the average blog the writing clocks in at less than 500 words per post.

I tend to write posts that are 1000-1500 words long. They take minutes, not a minute to read. (And, side note, they require hours to write and rewrite.)

So there I had it.  I would write shorter posts. I would become Mr. "If", a master of the laconic. I would save time, readers would save time, the world would be a better place.

Or would it? - V.W.

To be continued...


Friday, January 14, 2011

Monsieur Van Winkle's Comedies

NEWS NOTE: This week, while driving our son to school, I've seen all the flags at half mast. In keeping with the goals of this project, I still do not know why. I can say, however, that it is disturbing. What exactly has someone done that leaves so many mourning? - V.W.

Buy these at

In in lieu of keeping up with the news, I've lately been looking at the three-line news items that the Frenchman Felix Fénéon supplied to the Paris newspaper Le Matin in 1906. [See my post of January 11.]

These acts of brief reportage were called faits-divers and were collected in a volume, Novels in Three Lines, brought out by New York Review Books in 2007 .

I find Feneon's fait-divers not only historically interesting for what they reveal about early 20th Century life, but they are also prized specimens of a minimalist, modernist style in which a few, well chosen words are used to create maximum effect. At their best, they're like miniature poems in prose.

I noted, however, that what the newspaper considered newsworthy was (and this is still, for the most part, true today in our news media) invariably tragic. Sometimes the story told in ink is decidedly gruesome:

A corpse floated downstream. A sailor fished it out at Boulogne. No identification; a pearl-gray suit; about 65 years old.

Another Kind of Fait-Divers
Here at The Van Winkle Project, since we have no access to real news, we're not too shy to make up some of our own. In fact, we have decided it might be interesting to share a 21st Century version of faits-divers.

These updates of Fénéon's little three-line items are intended to deliberately reverse the original formulation. Instead of taking the view that the only news worth hearing about is tragic in nature, our fabricated news imagines a world in which sometimes things work out otherwise.

What follows then are possibly happy, maybe even dumbly sublime, outcomes, i.e., comedies, that likely will never be reported in either the print or electronic media if for no other reason than they never actually occurred.

But does this mean they're not worth reading? Perhaps even worth trying to believe in as we make our way through a world that too often seems darker than the one we wish for?

Without wanting to come off as a total naif, I dare to believe in the idea that because there are so many shadows, surely there must be shining somewhere a source of light. How else can the shadows we find all around us even be possible if there is not somewhere some semblance of light trying to break through?

Eight News Stories I'd Like to Read in Three* Lines
*or slightly more


A father of four driving home on the Interstate. After midnight. An oncoming 18-wheeler drifting toward him, but then it moves back just in time and rushes on past.


A little girl’s chocolate ice cream cone dripped onto her new sun dress. She laughed. Her mother would forgive her, wash the dress, and besides, the ice cream tasted so good on a hot day sitting outside on the porch with her bare feet touching concrete.


The blind man did not receive sight. Instead he dressed up, attended a party where he met a beautiful woman. She took him by the hand onto the terrace and there, beside a terra cotta planter, she kissed him because she had always wanted her lips to touch those of a man who had no idea what she looked like.


The woman made a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies, then she lost herself in the living room reading a home decorating magazine. A half hour went by, fifteen minutes, another five, and she realized she had forgotten to set the oven timer. She ran to the kitchen, opened the oven door, and took out the tray of cookies, which somehow, some way, emerged perfectly golden, nothing short of a miracle, and like all such things utterly inexplicable and delicious.


The wind blew the dark clouds in so that the rain fell on the northern part of our city but not the south. In the north they parted curtains and looked out spattered windows. In the south they stood barefoot in the streets, looking at dark hooves running over the sky and then they began playing music and dancing.


Rostikof and Dewey argued about God endlessly, Rostikoff a believer in the glories of Jehovah, Dewey, a virulent atheist. One day Dewey burst out that the two of them were getting old, but he hoped to hell there was a heaven so that someday they might continue their argument which gave them such pleasure without ever quite coming to blows. Both men laughed at Dewey’s contradictory vision, praised the wine, opened another bottle, and set to arguing again.


The next door neighbor's dog started barking at three a.m. awaking the middle-aged couple. They lay there in bed listening to the dog provoke another neighbor’s dog and another dog, each taking up the barking which soon became baying and howling around the block, an unrestrained canine symphony. Then he reached out, she reached out, they found each other, and as they filled the room with their own tactile music they heard the dogs no more.


A man picked up an orange and held the fruit in his hand, offering it to his eyes and nose, and for a few moments he knew, as a poet knows, that he would never grasp anything more monumentally, convincingly, lavishly orange. Then he ate it and went on his way.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Monsieur Fénéon's Tragedies

M. Félix Fénéon

NEWS LEAKAGE: For various reasons that I won't go into, I have a sense there's been a recent violent tragedy in America. Nothing that follows is intended to be an indirect comment on the event, whatever it was, and I remain "asleep." - V.W.

He was a thin man with an outrageously sharp nose and a beard like a goat's. He slipped in and out of Parisian society, striking others as gifted in language, but austere in his use of it.

It was his destiny to become a person of some influence in the late 19th century at a time when artists and political activists flocked together.

This man, Félix Fénéon (prounounced fay-nay-own), would discover the pointillist painter George Seurat and soon be promoting the work of other post-impressionists.

Likewise, he became an advocate for many important writers within the pages of literary magazines he either started or edtied. One of these publications became the first to print the work of an obscure Irish writer in France. The writer was James Joyce.

Fénéon also was, in his early years, an anarchist, There is hearsay evidence that he may have planted a bomb during a time of unrest and anger that makes our own age of terrorism seem mild. In 1892 alone, for example, 500 bombs exploded in the U.S. and over 1000 in Europe.

Fénéon had a reputation for writing a great deal, but true to his self-effacing disposition, and also in order to keep a low-profile because of his anarchist activities, he tended not to sign his articles.

He once said, "I aspire only to silence."

Paul Signac's psychedelic-looking rendition of his friend Fénéon ,
lily in hand, which Fénéon did NOT like...
Later in life he found himself working for newspapers. In 1906 he was assigned for six months to cover brief stories for Le Matin.

It is with his short tenure with the newspaper that Fénéon makes his lasting mark as a writer. His mistress clipped out his stories and saved them; otherwise, we would not know they were the work of Fénéon as they were printed in the standard way, without a byline.

Years later the merits of these little, true and tragic news stories, so poignantly and artfully expressed, were recognized. They were collected in a volume called Novels in Three Lines and published in English in 2007.

Life and Death as Filler
The great daily  newspapers were an invention of the 19th Century. In many countries, including France, the news of the day included a column of miscellaneous accounts that were judged not to merit in-depth reporting.

In France they were called "fait-divers" (pronounced fay-dee-vair) which might roughly translate as "various happenings."

Each item has to fit
in 3 lines of text.
The fait-divers are an interesting, non-fiction type of micro-narrative. They inform the world with the briefest of descriptions about domestic violence, suicide, assault, murder, brawls, vandalism, theft, accidents, deaths, and sometimes political unrest.

They also capture the dangers of the new industrial age as many of the subjects meet their ends through some encounter with a locomotive, automobile, or piece of steam-driven equipment.

Today we might see some of these notices placed under the "police blotter" or in a toned-down version within the obituaries.

Fénéon was assigned to write the fait-divers on p. 3 of Le Matin under the title "Nouvelles en Trois Lignes" (news or novellas in three lines). Fénéon set out to exploit his natural austerity, choosing his words so carefully and arranging them in such a way that each item became an exceptional example of minimalist prose style in which the aesthetic is "less is more."
The writer assumed that what was left out could imply a larger whole. In Fénéon's hands some of the fait-divers even achieved the poignancy and profundity of poetry or haiku.

Writer and translator Luc Sante enthuses in his introduction to the book:

"They demonstrate in miniature his epigrammatic flair, his exquisite timing, his pinpoint precision of language, his exceedingly dry humor, his calculated effrontery, his tenderness and cruelty, his contained outrage. His politics, his aesthetics, his curiosity and sympathy are all on view, albeit applied with tweezers and delineated with a single-hair brush."

Fénéon's effort to obtain the maximum effect from the fewest number of words, a notion that was popular in the literary movement that would later be labeled "Modernism," reminds me of the kind of incredibly compacted short story Ernest Hemingway tended to write.

According to a possibly apocryphal story, Hemingway once bet someone he could write a complete story in ten words or less. He penned on a napkin a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

          For sale: Baby shoes.
    Never worn.

This is exactly the kind of thing Fénéon wrote multiple times a day, every day, for six months in 1906.

Fénéon's Miniatures
Since, per the parameters of this project, a person who is Van Winkled is not allowed to read today's news, I've decided to compensate by reading a bit of the news from 115 years ago...

Over a thousand of Fénéon's fait-divers are collected in Novels in Three Lines. Here's a trio of typical ones that even in translation bear the imprint of Fénéon, whether it's his sarcasm or sense of the ironic or his way of unexpectedly carving up sentences.

Some drinkers in Houilles were passing around a pistol they thought was unloaded. Lagrange pulled the trigger. He did not get up.

It was believed that work would start up again today at the steelworks in Pamiers. A delusion.

A thresher seized Mme Peccavi, of Mercy-le-Haut, Meurthe-et-Moselle. The one was disassembled to free the other. Dead.

Some of the fait-divers are rendered in such a way that they register as very darkly, even morbidly, humorous:

A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frerotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.

At Sainte-Anne beach, in Finistere, two swimmers were drowning. Another swimmer went to help. Finally M. Etienne had to rescue three people.

The 392 from Cherbourg to Caen halted; the engineer dislodged from the cowcatcher the corpse of Thiebault, 2, and gave it to the boy's mother.

Some I appreciate for how Fénéon has paced them and focused on a perfect detail:

On the bowling lawn a stroke leveled M. Andre, 75, of Levallois. While his ball was still rolling he was no more.

Equipped with a rattail file and deceptively loaded with a quantity of fine sandstone, a tin cylinder was found on Rue de l'Ouest.

Finding her son, Hyacinthe, 69, hanged, Mme Ranvier, of Bussy-Saint-Georges, was so depressed she could not cut him down.

Some are simply bizarre:

The parish priest of La Compote, Savoie, was walking through the hills alone. He lay down, naked, under a beech tree, and died of an aneurysm.

Portebotte got 12 years in the penitentiary. In Le Havre he murdered the exuberant Nini the Goat, on whom he thought he had claims.

All the News That's Fit to Print? or Just Some of It?
Fénéon brings news of the relentlessly downbeat and depressing. These are tragedies, many of them as old as Cain and Abel.

The dispassionate reporting of all this malfeasance and misfortune actually has a paradoxical effect upon me. I see the event more vividly than if Fénéon had been allowed to indulge himself and use many more words, burying the heart of the story in voyeuristic detail and editorializing or melodrama.

The faits-divers are like crime scene photos in prose; they do not allow gilding of the awful. As in the following:

Medical examination of a little boy found in a ditch on the outskirts of Niort showed that he had undergone more than just death.

I cannot help but feel devestated when I think of the little boy lying in the ditch. I am forced by the absence of details to I think of the life he had, all that's implied by "little boy." Then I consider the cruel way he may have lost his life. By the time I reach the end of this simple 24-word sentence I mourn.

At the same time this is a clear case of what passes for "news" being the result of a highly selective and even biased process.

Six months of the faits-divers are not representative of the totality of French life in 1906 or most places on earth at any time in history.

Left out are the weddings, the births, the good food, the children playing, the teachers teaching and all the other unspoiled fruit in the barrel.

If life were composed mostly of the sort of things we find in these grim news tidbits, it's hard to see how we could go on living.

Which has led me to wonder: Could someone utilize Fénéon's highly compressed method to convey other news of the world? To possibly bring us some good news? C'est peut-être, M. Fénéon? Stay tuned. - V.W.

  COMING FRIDAY: Monsieur Van Winkle's Comedies  


Friday, January 7, 2011

On Seeking the Color Red

"There's something stuck out there in the front yard," my wife said as she came in the back door.

"What are you talking about?" I asked interested, but not alarmed. After all my wife didn't sound upset, just a bit mystified.

"It's in the bushes," she continued, standing on her toes at the kitchen sink to see if she could make out the mystery object through the window. "I don't know what it is. It's impaled. It looked like a piece of paper."

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One can be assured that my wife is not a nagger or a composer of honey dew lists. So there will be no marital drama ensuing from her sighting in which she expected a certain response from me and I failed to perform it. She had simply noticed the anomaly in our brown-yellow winter landscape while pulling the car into the garage.

She wanted to share why this particular piece of ubiquitous windblown piece of garbage out of all the windblown garbage in our rather untidy burg seemed a bit different from all others.

"It's red," she said.

"I'll check on it," I said.

The "Thing" in the Yard
As I stepped out the front door the first thing I noticed was the wind. It was from the south, the one the Greeks called Notos, and it was blowing hard.

Wind is not unusual in these parts. Cold weather blows down from the north. Then nature reverses itself and the Gulf of Mexico forces warmer air up from the south. Or the Pacific has its way and blows its tempestuous tidings in from the west. The only consistency is that if you live here on the open prairie, more often than not, there will be wind. Lots of it. No gentle breezes these, they are gusty and laden with grit.

With the wind whipping at my back I headed toward the garden area beneath the trees. At first I didn't see anything. I thought, Hmm, perhaps the wind blew the red thing to its next destination.

Then I passed a tree that was blocking my view. Ah, yes. There it was.

The red piece of paper. Windblown. Snagged.
I retrieved it and headed into the roar of the wind. I didn't look at the paper to find out what it was until later.

A Search for Red
Lately this visual red note that the wind played  in my life has caused me to notice something that previously I remained unaware of.

Red is a relatively rare color in our home.

Once I started my inventory of colors I identified plenty of browns and beiges and whites and even some black among our possessions and decor. But red? It was not so popular. On the other hand, what little red I could uncover seemed, in its uniqueness, to really stand out.

Tick tock. Red resides beside the bed.

Red is in the "C" in C-r-e-s-t whenever I brush my teeth.

Reliable red light tells me we're ready for incoming calls.

Red leaps out in our Tlingit Indian-style carving
we brought with us from Alaska years ago.

Red espresso cup waits in the kitchen.

This red file folder for years has housed our "important papers."

Red envelope that is nearly always present in our household.

Red paper flower our son made for Mom on Mother's Day.

The relative rarity of red in my life is as I think it should be. The color red is about eliciting excitement which is counter to everyday domestic tranquility. In fact, the main occasion of red in our home occurs at Christmas when it becomes all right for emotions to amp up a bit in order to offset the gray days of winter.

Right now I can look around right now and see the depleted poinsettia plants still camped out in pots on the fireplace hearth and a ceramic Santa collection and a dozen red ornaments that going on two weeks after the holiday haven't quite found their way back into storage. As the new year slides toward the ordinary I have to admit that the holiday's residual red seems an off-key reminder of what is emphatically past.

Humans don't seem to be made to live with constant excitement. This could explain why we don't dwell in red cities and men don't wear red suits or red jackets (except Michael Jackson in the Billie Jean video) and women may use red lipstick but do not paint themselves with red eye shadow (or is Lady Gaga thinking about changing that?) and most of us don't drive red cars.

We hoard our reds and dispense them when we need a lift or stimulation.

The Red-velation
Eventually I took a closer look at the piece of paper I had brought into the house. It was, as the previous front yard photo shows, blank on one side, but flipping it over I discovered writing. I suspected it was an advertisement of some kind. Then I read it and was disabused of this notion.

What I had in hand was a special message blown forth on the wind. A message that had been fashioned, in part, by someone named "Kambree."

I have no idea who Kambree is. I have a feeling she's a little girl who is pre-kindergarten age and that's why she's obediently cut out pictorial representations of words rather than was asked to fill in the blanks with actual words.

I wonder about the adhesive tape at the top of the piece of paper. Was Kambree's handiwork once taped to a refrigerator door and then removed at the end of the Christmas season? Or was the paper taped to a front door and the wind blew it loose? Where does Kambree live? Down the street? Or in another city far from here?

These are questions your intrepid Van Winkled reporter is unequipped to answer. All I can say is that a red piece of paper bearing an age-old message chose to unexpectedly and brightly land in my front yard. In the absence of TV screens, newspapers, etc. an event like this is enough to pass for news these days. One more jolt of red? Why not? I think I'll hang on to it. - V.W.